Dear Fellow White Women: Want to Smash the Patriarchy? Stand Against Racism
You can't claim to be a feminist if your "activism" involves the exclusion and abuse of people, especially women, of colour.
When Emma Stone, at the 2018 Oscars, referred to the Best Director nominees as 'these four men and Greta Gerwig', she was met with a mixture of praise and heavy criticism- and it wasn't from misgoynists. Sure, the actress was right to call out the ridiculously low number of female nominees- but she was swiftly criticised for ignoring the fact that "these four men" included a Latino man (Guillermo Del Toro) and a black one (Jordan Peele). Men of colour, as Stone's critcs pointed out, don't exactly get everything handed to them. Why should they- along with women of colour- celebrate one wealthy white woman for cheering on another wealthy white women, ignoring their experiences, and calling it feminism? (Plus, no-one's forgotten Aloha.)
Stone's comments, and the debate surrounding them, formed a perfect emblem for the duality that white women like her (and me) need to stop glossing over. Yes, misogyny and male privilege exist, and they've been screwing women- all women- over for centuries. But we've also been at best ignorant of and at worst complicit in the combined racism and sexism that has given us privilege, on many occasions, over men like Jordan Peele and George Floyd and always, always over black women and other women of colour.
Women like Breonna Taylor.
So while white women are held back by sexism, we're simultaneously benefitting from and upholding the same power structures that enable racism to survive and thrive. And if we really want to destroy the patriarchy, that's the first thing that has to change.
Like systemic racism throughout modern-day life, this juxtaposition of subjugation and privilege is hardly a new phenomena, with the history of slavery being a prime example. In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, historian Stephanie Jones-Rodgers notes that while they were denied a lot of rights, from voting to owning property after marriage, one thing white Southern women could do was own enslaved black men, women and children, and invest in the institution of slavery by hiring out, buying and selling them. Plus, while sexual relations- from vastly unequal but "consensual" ones to outright rape- were more common between white male slaveowners and enslaved women, the sexual exploitation of enslaved men by white women was not unheard of. (Harsh cultural and legal regulation of female sexuality made the woman's position dangerous, sure- but she could always acccuse the man of rape if things went sideways.) And in the worst-case scenario, a black person could be designated the property of someone like Delphine LaLaurie, who scandlised even her fellow elite white Southerners with the extent of abuse, torture and murder committed against her "assets".
Then there's the combined fearmongering regarding black male immorality and white female fragility that prompted "Jim Crow" laws designed to protect the latter from the former- for example, that black men could not be cared for in hospital by white female nurses (Alabama) or serve as a barber to white women and girls (Missisipi). Black men were potential rapists, white women needed protection from them, and the women of colour who had no protection from male rapists of any ethnicity were presumably, to white supremacists, irrelevent collateral damage. The same thinking is presented through Linda Fairstein as she's portrayed in When They See Us, with her "feminist" anger at the central rape used to mask the racism of pinning the crime on the first African-American boys she could find. And then we had the delightful Amy Cooper, who we've all seen by now bleating down her phone that 'there's an African-American man threatening my life' because said African-American man told her to put her dog on a lead.
The same day Christian Cooper's (no relation) video of Amy made the rounds, so did another: the one showing George Floyd's murder. And the impression from her starring role as "Karen" is that Amy, in calling the police and making absolutely sure they knew her "attacker" was a black male, understood exactly what she was doing, that he could meet the same end as George Floyd. Or Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin, or Tamir Rice's. Maybe even Emmett Till's. Any negative bias on the basis of gender would have been outweighed, almost certainly, by officers' positive bias in favour of her whiteness. And that combination of whiteness and femininity would have enabled her to play the victim, the damsel in distress, the one in need and worthy of protection. When a white woman wants to harm an unarmed black man, his "male privilege" means absolutely nothing.
And then, there's the depressing ease with which a white woman can claim power over women of colour. She can, for example, fail to account for the simultaneous sexism and racism that the latter experiences. She can ignore her experiences within the #MeToo movement. And she can draw on stereotypes like that of the "angry black woman" and claim to be "bullied", "attacked" and victimised (complete with indignation and often tears) when, say, a woman of colour dares to ignore her interruption, or tells her to stop touching her hair. (Did you learn nothing from Solange, Other White People? It's in the ****ing song title.)
Such weaponisation of white femininity may have originated in patriarchal stereotypes, but it's also been integral in fuelling what has been dubbed White Feminism- which, no, does not mean the wholesale stigmatisation of all feminists who happen to be white. White Feminism, to quote Mariam Khan in It's Not About the Burqa, is a byname for feminism that 'centres the agenda and needs of white, straight, middle-class, cis, able-bodied women while making claims that it speaks on behalf of all women' (111), while anyone else is sidelined and shouted down. For a White Feminist, 'As long as [her] white privilege [serves] her, equality for all women be damned' (115). And far too often, White Feminism and mainstream femnism are one and the same.
Yes, men (especially white men) still dominate the conversation in all areas, from who gets an Oscar nomination to who gets a promotion and yes, that's bad. But when women's voices are heard, as is happening more and more often, those voices are overwhelmingly white, with women of colour still excluded. Again, this is nothing new. In pre-war Britain, white (and usually middle to upper-class) suffrage campaigners wanted to use their future political power to help run the British Empire, and made a point of expressing their outrage that Maori women (for example) gained voting rights before white, English ones. A few went on to join the British Union of Fascists. In the U.S.A, meanwhile, white suffragists fluctuated between ignoring black women, and actively discriminating against them and their men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the most influential American suffragists, spent a great deal of energy proclaiming that 'white women would be degraded if Negro men preceded them into the franchise' and, in a 1913 pro-suffrage parade in Washington, the African American delegates were forced to march in a segregated assembly at the back.
Again, from this we can fast-forward to the present. To Tarana Burke's 'Me Too' movement going largely ignored until the hastag was inadvertantly appropriated by a white woman. To British women being expected to laud the Conservative Party for producing two female prime minsters, even though Margaret Thatcher was a homophobe who didn't really give a toss about other women, and Theresa May oversaw the racist, classist hellscapes of the Grenfell Tower fire and Windrush scandal- the latter being a product of the equally racist, degrading "hostile environment" she helped to create as Home Secretary. To the cropping of Vanessa Nakate from a group photo with three white, female fellow climate activists 'on composition grounds'. To BAME employees at Women Deliver, an organisation that supposedly advocates for all women, being passed over for promotions and verbally insulted within a culture of 'racist, white faux feminism'.
To black British women being five times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. To BAME people being consistently more likely to die after contracting coronavirus, with the death rate among black men and women being nearly twice as high as that among white people. To women like Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Yvette Smith and more dying mysteriously in custody or being openly killed by law enforcement employees.
For white women, it's easy to brush these things off as just "race issues", irrelevent to women's rights. But they're not. Because racism doesn't just benefit straight white men and kill unarmed black men- it affects, hurts and kills black women, Asian women, Indigneous women. And anything that harms women and therefore upholds patriarchal social orders, from racism and classism to homophobia and transphobia, is a feminist issue too.
So, what's the next step, for white women, in getting intersectional feminism right?
First off, do what everyone's telling white ally wannabes to do: educate yourself. Read anti-racist books, from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time to When They Call You a Terrorist by BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors and journalist Asha Bandele. Sign petitions like the one calling for Breonna Taylor's killers to be arrested and charged. Follow and support anti-racism activists and educators. Donate to organisations and charities like Southall Black Sisters, the National Bail Fund Network, the Runnymede Trust and the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. Go to protests or, if you can't, support protestors by donating supplies, providing childcare or being someone's emergency contact. Watch productions like When They See Us, 13th and Patriot Act, too.
At the same time, we need to listen to women of colour, and go for resources that speak out on issues where race and gender intersect. Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race discusses 'whitewashed feminism' within her wider dissection of British racism, but why stop there? There's also up-and-coming magazine gal-dem, fiction like Candice Carty-Williams' Queenie, and non-fiction like Candice Braithwaite's I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Mikki Kendall's Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot and Ruby Hamad's White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color.
Plus, you can go back in time a little, for example with documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and the works of Audre Lorde- or go even further back, and learn about trailblazing historical black women like abolitionist writer Mary Prince. Keep an eye out, too, for works by white feminists who are working for intersectionality and calling out White Feminism, like Alison Phipp's Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism.
During a keynote talk in 1981, Audre Lorde declared that "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own". Too many women throughout history have had difficulty understanding this- and now, it's vital that that changes.
Because, when white (and probably cis, middle-to-upper class) women talk about how sexism has hurt all women, that's of no use whatsoever without our acknowledging, and counterracting, how racism has helped us while harming women of colour. (Dismissing them, insisting that "I don't see colour!" and using strategic tears to gaslight them into compliance are just three things that don't help anyone.) There are so many toxic, oppressive, stupid prejudices and belief systems in the world that, so far, have stubbornly refused to just die already. Sexism, racism, homophobia, biphobia, ableism, classism, transphobia- the list goes on. And it's only when we're working to dismantle every single one, and consequently fighting to build a genuinely equal world, that we can all truly, honestly, call ourselves feminists.